Novel Submissions: tips and advice on submitting your book to a publisher

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How can you make the best pitch possible?

One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘How can I get a publisher to accept my book?’ (or variations on that theme), and while I always do my best to give authors useful and actionable advice, the most honest answer I can give is that there is no real sure-fire way to guarantee publication (unless you have managed to achieve some sort of celebrity status, that is!). In many ways, it is out of your control.  Your manuscript will either inspire a publisher to take it on, or it won’t, and dozens of factors come in to play either way. What is within your control is how you prepare your work for consideration.

So, the real question you need to be asking is ‘How can I make the best pitch possible?’, which is the question I am hoping to answer here.

These tips will probably be of most use to the first-time submitter: someone unfamiliar with how the submissions department and acquisition team (those who make the decisions on what to commission) work. I can only advise based on the in-house experience I had – as production editor and submissions officer for an independent publisher – since applying to the ‘big’ publishers is, no doubt about it, going to be a different ball game altogether. But so long as you keep that in mind, there should hopefully be something here that can help.

Unsolicited manuscripts

Unsolicited manuscripts are submissions that are sent into an office unrequested, or on spec. The authors of these have not been approached by a publisher and commissioned to write the article/book/collection in question. 

For the most part, the larger traditional publishers generally won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts for consideration – they have teams dedicated to sourcing talent for them. And, if they do agree to assess unsolicited work, it is likely that those manuscripts came from authors represented by a literary agent – submissions would then go to the publisher from that agent, who may take a fee or, most likely, a certain percentage of any royalties a book would make, if accepted for publication.

Smaller, local publishers are those most likely to accept unsolicited manuscripts and these are, I find, the best to approach if you’re starting out. It is worth nothing, though, that if they do accept manuscripts without recommendation from an agent, then they will usually receive hundreds every month (at least!). Most of the smaller presses don’t have dedicated submissions teams – instead the editorial team try to fit some submission reading in and around working on ‘live’ projects – so the response time can be quite high, and you will most likely not receive any feedback on your work.

Choosing where to submit

A great resource to find out about the various publishers available (at least in the UK & Ireland) is The Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is published every year and available in most bookshops or libraries. It gives a list of publishers with a brief description of the types of books they publish and, most importantly, whether or not they accept unsolicited manuscripts. 

Another option is to visit your local bookshop and library, look for titles comparable to your own, and see who published them. Those are the publishers who are most likely to be receptive to your work.

Tailoring your submission

Once you have decided which publishers to approach, make sure that you visit their websites. Most will have a history of the company and list past and present publications, which should help you confirm if your work would fit with their imprint list. 

More importantly, hunt around for their submission guidelines, which will tell you exactly how to best present your work for assessment (Do they prefer hard copy or email? Do they want sample chapters or just a pitch? etc.) Following these guidelines shows that you have really thought about the process and customised your submission to suit them. I can tell you, there was nothing more frustrating than knowing the person submitting the work hadn’t done the bare minimum of research on our company before firing off their letter/email/IM. Publishers want to know you respect them enough to personalise and tailor your submission accordingly. After all, you’d do it for a job application …

Sending in a submission

When you do send in a submission, place a strong emphasis on the sales potential. Show them that you know your market (who would read the book? what would make people buy your title over all others? … and be realistic! Saying that your friends or family love the book really doesn’t carry a lot of weight.) Make sure to mention anything that might give you a leg up in the marketing of the book: if you have a strong social media following; if you have any contacts in the regular media who would guarantee publicity (in newspapers; blogs, vlogs, or on TV, radio etc.); or if you know any famous types, ideally in the field you are writing about, who would be willing to endorse the book. A publisher is a business at the end of the day, so do not underestimate the importance of the bottom line. They have to look at the figures, to see if they can guarantee enough sales to cover the cost of production.

Oh, and while I would also recommend that you send to multiple publishers at once (since the waiting time is notoriously long), I would not recommend that you announce this on your cover letter. No one likes to think they’re not your first choice!

Is your book ready to send?

Probably the best advice when it comes to the work itself, and I really cannot emphasise this enough, is whether you are sending to a publisher or to an agent, send in your samples when it is as close to finished as possible

As the slots for publication and representation are so limited, and the competition is so strong, it is generally better to have some strong text to show the submissions team rather than just an idea pitch. Read and reread it; make sure it is as tight and well researched as possible; and most importantly, get as much honest feedback as possible so that you can work on the weaker aspects before you submit – whether that feedback is from that rare friend and family member who will give you genuine critique as well as praise, or from a freelance editor (like myself … ahem). I touched on it earlier, but in my time at the submissions desk, I was genuinely stunned by the volume of manuscripts received in which the author thought it was enough to tell me how much their mum/dad/granny/local baker loved the book. That, I’m sorry to say, does not hold water with anybody. Unless your mum is Anne Enright, and she is willing to give you an endorsement …

Should I have my work edited first?

This is not a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, but since most publishers take a book through the editing process themselves (most actually prefer to, so that the manuscript is edited and formatted to their house style), I wouldn’t necessarily advise an author to have their manuscript professionally edited before submitting. At the very least, it gives the publisher a false sense of your writing ability, which leaves you vulnerable if rewrites are needed, or if a second book is commissioned. 

However, if you think that your work would benefit from editorial intervention, it may be worth considering a manuscript assessment before you submit: have an editor review your book and identify any strengths and weaknesses. The best editors will try to poke holes in the plot and make suggestions and observations where they can. It’s not designed to be a fix, you would still need to do the work to get it into shape if it needed it, but it could potentially show you how to move forward so that you can fine-tune before you submit.

Getting elevated from the ‘slush pile’ is not easy, but the more preparation you do before sending your manuscript, the better your chances are that your book will be seen by the right person. And that can make all the difference!

Photo by Elena Koycheva, Unsplash

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